I have been writing my blog about feminist motherhood for five years but it took a few years of reading and writing on the topic for me to have much of a clue, really, on how to define feminist parenting, apart from just the fact that it included me – a feminist with a baby. When I first became a mother I had one feminist friend with kids and that was it.
Sometime back in the first year of blogging I started wondering who was reading my blog, and if they were parents how they would define their feminist parenting. So, I put up a post with ’10 Questions About Your Feminist Parenthood’ and I waited to see what would happen. I expected maybe half a dozen responses, if I was lucky, but over the years word has spread and all together I have received almost 100 responses.. with more still coming in. (And you’re very welcome to contribute a response of your own, too).
The responses have come from all over the world, including Australia, USA, Italy, UK, Canada, New Zealand, France, Germany, South Korea, Singapore and South America, and they have included a wide range of parenting experiences, such as primary parents, step-parents, adoptive parents, grandparents, co-parents and one set of expectant parents. Among the people responding there have been single parents and partnered parents; queer parents and straight parents; and at-home parents, parents who are also students and parents working in paid employment. The responses have been an absolute pleasure to read – they have been equal parts fascinating, charming, funny, sad, reassuring and revealing. (They make for a great paper and, in fact, I delivered a paper last year to a conference on this very subject and you can see links at the bottom of this post for a summary of my findings).
These responses have also changed some of my views on feminist parenthood. For instance, no other question received as strong a response as that of question 7, which was about how women reconciled the sacrifice involved in motherhood with their feminism. An overwhelming majority of women said they couldn’t relate to the question, and some even found it offensive. (Interestingly, a few other mothers said it was not only something they could relate to but that it was something they were struggling with in their lives, and all of those women happened to be at-home parents). These responses helped me to realise that feminism often over-simplifies the barriers holding mothers back and that it can tend to be seen as blaming mothers, themselves, rather than the patriarchal ways in which we organise the world against mothers and their care work. It also made me think that ‘sacrifice’ is a very loaded word.
So, what does a feminist parent look like? Here is a smattering of highlights from the responses I have received to my ’10 Questions About Your Feminist Parenthood’:
How has parenthood changed your feminism?
“I drank with the boys, talked music with the boys, studied with the boys, worked with the boys, and hated every girl I saw. So, being female didn’t play a role in how I lived (except I got to sleep with some of my best friends). I first called myself a feminist after giving birth to a girl who I couldn’t help but like. It forced me to realise that I am female. When the party’s over and I can’t live like a bachelor anymore. It has forced me to identify with my sex”.
“Mr Mom was a fairly unusual arrangement 20 years ago and I thought it confirmed my feminism. Instead I worked nonstop as breadwinner and mother. In many ways I overcompensated for not being home during the day by trying to be the perfect mom at nights and on weekends. Did I mention I did all the cooking and cleaning too? Yeah, not so feminist an approach.. It has taken me a long time to understand that ‘motherhood means sacrifice’ does not mean mothers are solely responsible for sacrifice”.
“When I was younger I was all about women competing in the public sphere. Now I’m all about that if that is what folks want. But also I want work inside the home to be valued more”.
“My initial reaction to this is to think that my feminism hasn’t changed, that it’s just an immutable part of my personality, but this isn’t true. Working as a midwife has exposed me to just a selection of the myriad ways that women are abused, even educated, privileged, middle-class white women. And every day I think that if they are subject to abuse because they are women, what the hell must it be like for the non-English speaking, the homeless, the illiterate, the substance-addicted and the young women that also walk through our doors to have their babies?”
What surprised you about parenthood?
“I had no idea I would fall in love so completely and overwhelmingly. It amazes me that there is this big cultural silence on this issue. Where are the songs, the stories about any form of love other than the romantic sort?”
“I always assumed that I would be a working mother. What I could not imagine is the anguish going back to work caused me. Leaving my son at 8 weeks old left me emotionally and physically bereft. I’d sit in my office at lunch, pumping and crying. Every day off that I spent with my son, I cried because I knew I would have to go back to work. Breastfeeding became a do or die situations for me because it was the one thing that I alone could provide for my son, regardless of whether I was with him all day or not. Not having any choices re. working part-time, working from home; being tied to my job in part because of benefits, it made me realise that mothering and how we choose to mother are FEMINIST choices”.
On suddenly feeling so dependent upon their male partner in a way they’ve not previously experienced (“when I was caring full-time for my son, who was born with a physical disability, I realised how dependent I was on my partner financially, and it freaked me out”), which was also a very negative experience for some (“the sinking feeling that I had tied myself to someone I really wasn’t sure I should have married. I felt like I was at my partner’s mercy. Once I had a baby he turned dictator”).
“I spent the last two months of my first pregnancy reading The Second Sex and I was so ready to raise this kick-ass, take nothing from anyone girl, and now.. that boy has three younger brothers”.
From a profeminist father: “At the end of the day, your main task is to survive and support your family and raise happy children; how you respond to the things you can’t control reveals a great deal about your character. You might discover a capacity for sacrifice and care that you never knew was there. On the flip side.. you might also find yourself erupting with petty rage and misdirected resentment, eruptions that frighten you, your child, and your partner.. when our worst emotions take over.. it is easiest of all for both fathers and mothers to fall back on traditional patterns of dominance and submission”.
What is feminist parenting?
“I wish I could say that my objection to patriarchal authoritarianism has translated into an approach to child-rearing that is gentle, reciprocal, and respectful. Let me tell you, though, I yell way too much. I pull rank all the time. I’m always indirectly playing the Bigger Than You Are card. I hate it. I also would like to claim that my experience as a mother has made me more politically active, more involved in my community. No. My experience as a mother has made me tired and cranky and frustrated.”
“As a mother I was and am straightforward about being marginalised by society for being a working class mother. So, I ‘outed’ every instance where this happened to my son (who is now 21), so he would be in no doubt about what my place was in society and, by associating, his place as a working class male. Also I was very fierce about violence against women, and to the best of my knowledge my son has never hit a woman”. (Several mothers who identified as working class talked about the importance of identifying intersection and training their children to cope with the multiple oppressions).
“Feminism has not necessarily made me a better mother. It’s given me.. an alternative, perhaps kinder model for self-critique, instead of worrying about whether the house is clean enough, I’m thinking about whether or not I’ve met my own social or intellectual needs, in order to ensure I’m fulfilled and happy, which in turn makes me a better more resilient, more patient mother”.
What are the hardest parts of being a feminist parent?
“When I look at the roles in our household I definitely do the majority of the housework. I hate what this models for my son. I feel like I’m failing him in terms of his future relationships with women (and failing those women too)”.
“Being the type of mother I am and the type of person I am means that fitting in with other new mothers has been a challenge at times. My ‘wanting to be liked’ side conflicts with my ‘opinionated and judgemental’ side. Yes, I want to be tolerant and respect other people’s choices, but I also want to speak my mind without being pigeon-holed as the freaky-hippy-lesbian mum”.
“Other feelings of failure – the first time you balance wanting your son to be whoever he wants to be and wanting to protect him from teasing if he decides he wants to wear pink to kindergarten. The catching of myself disliking my belly in the mirror. The moment when my three year old son told my woman dermatologist that she didn’t look like a doctor”.
For more, see the following links at my blog.
(You can follow me on twitter @bluemilk)